by Jim Samuels
Coming off a 1-0 whitewash of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Rangers stood at 17-9-2-1 and sat alone atop the eastern conference. But just six days and three alarming losses later, the Blueshirts have transformed from a team on a roll, that saw them go 11-2-1-1 over their previous 15 matches, to a team in a mild state of disarray.
After dropping their third straight game overall and second in a row to the Toronto Maple Leafs Saturday night at the Air Canada Centre, the Rangers find themselves faced with their first true crisis of this young season. This vastly improved squad has seemed vulnerable playing against teams that have been able to consistently create a cycle down low in the offensive zone.
Both the Caps and Leafs were able to generate offense by dumping the puck in and forcing the Rangers defense. The team’s average sized defensive corps frequently lost one on one battles and have once again begun to pay for poor defensive zone coverage, dropping all three matches this week; giving up fifteen goals in the process.
The Blueshirts began the week by facing the Washington Capitals for the third time in this young season. After getting beaten badly in their previous two match-up’s with the Caps, the Rangers came in on a roll having won three straight and seemed primed to put forth a solid effort against their early season nemesis. But the Caps struck early and often, as their top line of Jaromir Jagr, Adam Oates and Ulf Dahlen dominated a first period that saw Washington jump out to a 2-0 lead.
Dahlen opened the scoring at the 6:16 mark, beating Mike Richter from close range to put the Caps in front. Ten minutes later, tough guy Chris Simon converted yet another Radek Dvorak blueline turnover to give Washington a two goal lead. After Eric Lindros got the Rangers on the board with a power play marker early in the second, Peter Bondra took over scoring twice in just over a two minute span to put the Caps up 4-1 heading into the third period.
Bondra’s first marker, his 400th of his NHL career, was allowed only after a video replay showed that the puck went over the line just prior to the net being dislodged by Rangers defensemen Dave Karpa. Petr Nedved and Dainus Zubrus exchanged third period goals as the Caps beat the Rangers 5-2, their third victory over the Blueshirts in as many tries this season.
Washington had a 35-20 shot advantage and have outshot the New York by a whopping 128-70 margin in their three early season victories over the Rangers. Blueshirts went 1 for 2 with the man advantage while killing 2 of 3 Caps power plays. Ulf Dahlen’s first period goal snapped Richter’s scoreless streak at 160:05.
On Thursday, the Rangers returned home to face Mats Sundin and the Northeast division leading Toronto Maple Leafs. In the opener of a home and home series New York jumped out early, taking a 1-0 lead on Mark Messier’s power play marker midway through the first period.
But after building a 2-0 lead early in the second, the Leafs began to find their game as Gary Roberts got Toronto on the board at the 8:26 mark of the second period. Roberts and Shane Corson scored less than a minute apart late in the second to give the Leafs a well deserved 3-2 lead heading into the third period.
After Vladimir Malakhov tied it for New York early in the third period, the Rangers began to play “Back to the Future” hockey as missed assignments and lackadaisical defensive play once again reared their ugly heads. Mats Sundin was allowed to stand alone in front of Richter and knock a rebound past the overworked netminder to give the Leafs a 4-3 lead. Then Jonas Hoglund gave Toronto a little insurance before Roberts completed the hat trick with just under five minutes remaining to ice the game for the Leafs.
The loose play in their own end was eerily reminiscent of that of the past four non playoff Blueshirt editions as the Rangers were unable to match Toronto’s intensity for the 60 minutes needed to beat a team of the Leafs caliber. For one of the few times this season, the Rangers were outworked on home ice.
Goaltender Corey Schwab started for the Leafs and got the win, turning aside 23 of 26 Ranger shots. With the loss to the Leafs, the Rangers are now 14-1-0-0 when they score three or more goals. Toronto has won five of the last six meetings with the Blueshirts.
It was more of the same for the Rangers in their engagement Saturday night in Toronto. After scoring first for the second time in as many nights, the Rangers were outplayed badly over the latter half of the first period. Goals by Sundin and Darcy Tucker gave Toronto a 2-1 lead they held after the first period. Alexander Mogilny and Travis Green added second period goals as the Rangers trailed by three in a game that wasn’t even that close. Rookie Dan Blackburn who has been outstanding thus far, was very ordinary in his tenth start and 11th appearance. Blackburn seemed a bit tentative and wasn’t his usual aggressive self early on as the Leafs jumped out to a three goal lead.
Finally, the Rangers awoke in the third period, goals by Andreas Johansson, his ninth, and Petr Nedved’s eighth of the season drew the Blueshirts within one but Toronto netminder Curtis Joseph slammed the door preserving the Leafs second straight victory over the Rangers.
New York is now 11-3-0-0 when scoring first, with the loss the Rangers are now tied for the eastern conference lead with the New York Islanders with 37 points apiece. Mark Messier did not skate against the Leafs due to back spasms, the Rangers have now posted an 11-5-1-0 mark when Nedved posts a point.
OUTLOOK: New York stumbles home from Toronto on a three game losing streak and in need of some home cooking. Good news for the Rangers is that they play their next seven games at the Worlds Most Famous Arena. So, it’s safe to say that this is the time for the Blueshirts to make some hay in the eastern conference standings.
WHAT’S NEXT: The Rangers return home on Monday for a Garden match against Mike Keenan and the Florida Panthers on Monday. The Nashville Predators pay a visit to the Garden on Wednesday before a rare Saturday night tilt at MSG between the Boys in Blue and the Sabres.